There is nothing new under the sun. It has all been done before.
Sherlock Holmes, A Study in Scarlet
Recently I’ve started watching The Mentalist starring Simon Baker and Robin Tunney. Basic plot summary: it’s about a man named Patrick Jane, a con man and former “psychic,” who works as a consultant for the fictional California Bureau of Investigation so he can track down notorious serial killer, Red John, and avenge his murdered wife and daughter. Heavy stuff, right? Well, most of the episodes don’t even mention Red John, so the show’s mostly about Jane and the Serious Crimes Unit (the one he works for) going around California and Nevada solving crime.
Watching crime drama/police procedural shows is not a new hobby. As a family, we used to gather around the TV on weeknights and watch USA network shows for a couple of hours. What interests me about the shows, besides the actual crime-solving and the badass characters, are the similarities to my hobby/obsession: Sherlock Holmes.
Because it would take me at least a week to confide all of my knowledge and opinions on everything Sherlockian (or Holmesian, if you’re British) to you, I won’t bore you with details of his amazingness. Rather, I’m going to discuss how much the crime dramas I watch have been inspired by the world’s first consulting detective. Since I’ve already mentioned The Mentalist, I’ll start there.
What’s so Holmesian about The Mentalist?
*Patrick Jane is a consultant. I’m pretty sure (but don’t quote me) Holmes was the first police consultant, and while they would probably still exist today without him, Holmes is most likely the reason police consultants consistently crop up in pop culture.
*Prior to his life as a police consultant, Patrick Jane was a professional con man, earning his wealth by pretending to be a psychic. In order for his schemes to work, he had to be skilled not only in cold reading, but in observation, deduction, and human nature. Jane succeeds as a police consultant because he can draw vast conclusions from minor details (“trifles,” Holmes would call them) and accurately predict how suspects will behave based on those same details as well as knowledge of their motivations. Holmes made this skill famous, and it’s difficult to find many detectives who don’t demonstrate this skill as well.
*Even though he technically works for the law, Jane has almost zero respect for it. Not an episode goes by when he doesn’t flout or flat-out break the law to get his way, anything from lying, stealing, trespassing, and breaking and entering to blackmail, aiding and abetting, assault, conspiracy, and once, even murder. The only reason he hasn’t been fired or imprisoned is because the Serious Crimes Unit has an extremely high rate of closing cases. Holmes, too, often disregarded the law when it suited him because sometimes that was the only way for him to lay hands on the criminal and the truth. One thing must be said for these chronic lawbreakers: you can’t argue with results.
*Dr. Watson, Holmes’s faithful biographer, once remarked that Holmes “loathed every form of society with his whole Bohemian soul,” eccentric that he was. He was obsessed with the study of crime and devoted nearly all of his time making himself the best detective ever, and with that kind of ambition you don’t have time to out socializing and being normal. Likewise, Jane is a social anomaly. Most nights Jane putters around the CBI office, catching a few winks on the leather couch between drinking tea and obsessing over Red John. That’s because his home is in Malibu, about six hours away from CBI headquarters in Sacramento, and there’s nothing there but a bare mattress, and a smiley face, Red John’s signature, painted in blood above it, where he sleeps. Yeah… Jane’s pretty morbid. On a lighter note, he loves tea and eating in restaurants and diners, where he always orders eggs.
*Crime dramas love the big dramatic denouement at the end of an episode. You know who popularized those? Sherlock Holmes. Actually, Holmes was a fan of drama in general. He liked to enter the flat in a variety of costumes, perplexing poor Watson who often couldn’t recognize his friend. You know who loves drama just as much, if not more so, than Holmes? Patrick Jane. You’ve got to be theatrical to make it in the carnival/psychic scene, and Patrick Jane excels at theatrics, probably because he’s a phenomenal liar. His favorite trick? Reading people’s minds.
*Because Jane was a father once, he reserves a special place in his heart for children, whether they’re the victims of crimes or merely the collateral damage. While other police officers might make them nervous, kids are never afraid of Jane, so he’s usually the one to interview or comfort them. And, much to Watson’s and his housekeeper’s chagrin, Holmes keeps a squadron of children in his employ that he affectionately calls the Baker Street Irregulars, his eyes and ears around the city.
*For every Sherlock Holmes there must be a Dr. Watson, the smart, able-bodied companion utterly fascinated by the detective’s genius. For Patrick Jane, this is Agent Teresa Lisbon, head of the Serious Crimes Unit in the CBI. In many ways, Agent Lisbon is Jane’s polar opposite. She’s a petite brunette, he’s tall and blonde. She’s Catholic, he’s an atheist. She drinks coffee, he drinks tea. More importantly, Lisbon holds herself and her agents to extremely high standards of effort and morality and believes wholeheartedly in the law’s efficacy. And Lisbon is, truly, Jane’s only friend. She is the only one who can tolerate him in high doses without wanting to shoot him, the only one to defend him to her superiors when he offends yet another Important Person or breaks ten more laws, and the only one who really seems to understand his obsession with Red John. Not that she approves of his single-minded revenge; she’d rather have Red John in custody than Jane in prison for murder, or worse.
*There must also be a Professor Moriarty, and Jane’s arch nemesis is the serial killer known as Red John, wanted for brutally murdering nearly 30 people, including Jane’s wife and daughter. Red John is clearly Jane’s intellectual equal, always anticipating Jane’s plans before he can enact them, always two steps ahead of all the law enforcement agencies hunting him. Like Moriarty, Red John has lots of connections (his many disciples) but evidence can never be traced back to him. Even after a decade of slaying, he hasn’t made one mistake yet. Finally, he and Jane both know that one of them must die in the final confrontation, and Jane has long since accepted that his own death will not be in vain if he can kill Red John first.
Wow. If you’ve made it this far, I am thoroughly impressed. You must really like Sherlock Holmes! Or The Mentalist! Or been really, really bored. Just for making all the way down here, Red John won’t send you creepy messages or draw a gruesome smiley face on your wall. Congratulations.
All righty then, tune in next time for more on TV’s Holmesian detectives!